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Why are so many young people turning away from politics?

March 21, 2022

Of course, not all young people turn away from politics, but many do. In the Louis-Harris survey for the Institut Montaigne (a representative sample of 8,000 young people aged 18 to 24)[1], young people who are politically disaffiliated, those who do not recognize any ideological or political proximity (by not being on the left-right scale and by not indicating a partisan preference), represent 34% of the sample of 18- 24 years. They are 21% in the generation of parents and 15.5% in that of baby boomers. At the other end of the spectrum, young people who declare both a political position and a closeness to a party are only 36% (60% among parents, 64% among baby boomers). The distancing from political parties is particularly strong: 19% of 18-24 year olds say they do not feel close to any political party and 36% say they do not know them well enough to have an opinion, i.e. a majority young people, 55%, who do not indicate any closeness to a political party.

There are several dimensions to this estrangement: a dimension of disinterest (rather captured by the item “not knowing enough about political parties to have an opinion”) and a dimension of rejection (rather captured by the item “not feeling close to no formation”). Among young people, the dimension of disinterest seems predominant. Figure 1 shows the evolution from one generation to another and by educational level, of the percentage of respondents who indicate “not knowing enough about the political parties (the main parties presented to them in the question) to have a opinion “. Several lessons can be drawn from this. On the one hand, this percentage of people removed from politics through ignorance or disinterest increases from one generation to another: it is higher in the generation of parents than in that of baby boomers, and even higher in the younger generation. This shows that there is indeed a generation effect or a period effect in this evolution.[2]. The age effect is plausible among young people (and it no doubt partly plays a role), but there is no reason for it to manifest itself in the generation of parents (people aged between 46 and 56 at the time of of the investigation). The lack of interest in partisan issues seems to be increasing gradually.

Second lesson: the effect of the diploma is considerably reinforced from one generation to the next. Among baby boomers, this effect is nil. It grows in the generation of parents and increases further in the younger generation. In which way ? In the sense that the non-qualified or poorly qualified deviate more and more clearly from the graduates in terms of partisan affiliation. Thus young people holding a diploma below the baccalaureate are today 46% to declare themselves incompetent to express a partisan preference.

Figure 2 on the rejection of parties shows a very different result: it is the older generations who most strongly express, no longer an inability to designate a party to which one would feel close (as previously), but a refusal to do so. But this result is a mirror result of the previous one: young people are mainly uninterested, so they are less likely to express a rejection which, in a way, is still a manifestation of interest in politics, even if it is disappointed and frustrated interest. Figure 2 also shows that the level of education has an opposite effect among young people compared to the other two generations. In the generations of parents and boomers, the rejection of parties decreases when the level of diploma rises, while it is the opposite among young people. The more young people are qualified, the more (unlike their elders) they reject parties. This is an important reversal which undoubtedly shows a generational phenomenon specific to young graduates. Indeed, traditionally politicization increases with the level of study. This relationship may be undermined today among some young graduates.

figure 1. estrangement out of disinterest
(Source: Louis-Harris Institut Montaigne survey, September 2021)

figure 2. Distance by rejection
(Source: Louis-Harris Institut Montaigne survey, September 2021)

These results suggest a mechanism of distancing from politics in the younger generations with two triggers: above all by lack of interest among the less educated, also by lack of interest but also by rejection of the parties among the most educated. The problem does not seem to lie so much in the fact that young people have given up worrying about societal issues and, in a broad sense, political issues, but that the political offer no longer constitutes a satisfactory answer in their eyes. A striking illustration of this is provided, in the Louis-Harris survey, by a double result: 62% of 18-24 year olds consider that “issues related to the environment, climate, ecology” are issues that should constitute a “very important” subject (and 90% a very or rather important subject) and yet only 11% of young people say they are close to Europe-Ecologie-Les-Verts, the party supposed to be the most ardent supporter of these environmental issues. This illustrates well the divorce of young people from politics, or at least from the political system as it exists today.

What can fuel this divorce?

The moral discredit from which the political system suffers is obviously a first response, even if it is a little tautological (young people no longer believe in politics because politics is no longer worth believing). This discredit is massive and general, it affects all generations: 69% of young people think that politicians are corrupt (rather or completely), 67% of members of the parents’ generation and 56% of boomers. Figure 3 shows the massive effect that this feeling of discredit has on the belief in the usefulness of the vote, one of the main foundations of our democratic regimes.

figure 3. The usefulness of the vote according to the generation and the opinion on the politicians
(Source: Louis-Harris Institut Montaigne survey, September 2021)

But Figure 3 also shows that this moral discredit effect does not explain everything. On the one hand, it is transgenerational and therefore cannot account on its own for the increased political disaffiliation of young people. On the other hand and above all, figure 3 shows that the delegitimization of the vote progresses from one generation to another even among those who think that politicians are honest. There is therefore a deeper mechanism of estrangement from politics at work. This short note obviously does not claim to bring out all the springs. The loss of credibility of the political offer of the government parties very probably feeds it. However, the more radical parties or those who propose a clean break like EELV only manage to attract a small minority of young people.

Another possible element of interpretation is the loss of faith in the importance of democracy. When asked how important it is “for you to live in a country that is democratically governed, that is to say a country where people choose their leaders in free elections”, only 51% of young people consider this to be very important (by being on positions 9 or 10 of a ten-point scale), 20 percentage points less than baby boomers! A considerable difference which can hardly be explained by an age effect since it is a question here of a choice of values ​​and not of a political choice which can be reinforced with age. A weakening of adherence to democratic principles seems well underway, as Yasha Mounk argues in a recent book[3].

Some young people have perhaps forgotten or are unaware that democracy is not just an elective mechanism, but that it is also the guarantor of civil liberties, those which protect the citizen against all abuses of power. , those that ensure freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, freedom of movement. Rejecting the elective mechanism can also lead to the weakening of civil rights. In certain illiberal European countries, the latter are moreover threatened. In France, it seems a priori so implausible that it perhaps leads some to think that there is no risk in showing indifference, or even skepticism, with regard to the democratic system. In countries other than ours where freedoms are really threatened, young people defend democracy with a fervor that we no longer know in the West. A good example is found in Taiwan. LCP TV broadcast a fascinating documentary about Taiwanese democracy and the role of youth in bringing it to life[4]. This youth had been the main actor of the “Sunflower revolution” to oppose in 2014 the rapprochement with China that the government was planning at the time. Building on this movement, against the background of the threats that China still poses to the country’s freedoms, Taiwanese youth are promoting an innovative democratic model based on the active involvement of citizens through intensive use of digital technologies. to ensure the greatest possible transparency of political decisions and to systematically make fact checking. This fight is also carried by the astonishing Audrey Tang, icon of Taiwanese youth, and transgender Minister of Digital. Here we are light years away from the democratic apathy of our old nations. Will the dramatic events that are shaking the European continent on its eastern edge and of which one of the main issues is the permanence and the spread of democracy (see the excellent paper by Philippe de Lara in Telos) resuscitate the democratic fiber and the political momentum of youth? It should be, it is an urgent issue that society as a whole should address.

[1] See A plural youth. Survey of 18-24 year oldsInstitut Montaigne, February 2022.

[2] This generational effect is confirmed by other data. INSEE surveys on electoral participation show that, since 2002, systematic abstention has increased among young people, while it has remained stable among voters aged 40 and over. In 2017, one out of five young people aged 18-24 and one out of five young people aged 25-29 did not take part in any round of the presidential election or elections. It is therefore quite possible that the electoral desertion of young people will increase further in the next elections.

[3] Yascha Mounk, The people against democracyEditions de l’Observatoire, 2018.

[4] Taiwan, a democracy in the shadow of Chinaa film by Alain Lewkowicz.

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